Say what you want and own it – navigating sex in long-term relationships

An intimacy upgrade
An intimacy upgrade
Eric Raptosh Photography/ Getty Images

When things aren’t quite right in your sex life and intimacy is lacking, it can be a source of worry and relationship stress. Especially in these days of  lockdown when we need  to support each other even more. But there’s much that can be done if you’re willing to make the effort, says Cate Campbell, a psychosexual counsellor and author of The Relate Guide to Sex and Intimacy.


Many couples avoid explaining how they feel and what they really want for fear of hurting one another’s feelings, causing an argument or making a fool of themselves. People say things like “I want more sex” because it sounds more confident than “I’m afraid you’ve lost interest in me”. But being vulnerable in this way promotes intimacy. Also, the clearer you are with your partner about what you do and don’t want, the more likely you are to have your desires met. Intimacy-builder Say what you want and own it. Avoid blaming your partner. Use “l” rather than “you” statements.

For example, say, “When we haven’t had sex for a while I worry that you don’t like me anymore” rather than “You never want sex”.


Ageing, parenting and the daily grind eat away at your sexual relationship and sensual feelings over time. One way to improve your sex life is to seize opportunities to keep the fire between you alive. Make physical intimacy with your partner part of your everyday life, several times a day, and appreciate when they are offering you affection and intimacy. It’s these moments that make your relationship special and honour the unique connection you share.

Intimacy-builder Initiate intimate moments when the mood takes you, enjoy a good smooch without it necessarily ending in sex, hold hands, cuddle up together on the sofa and be flirtatious with your partner.

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Bad hygiene is a major reason people avoid sex. Some people just aren’t very good at hygiene or think if their partner loves them enough, careless hygiene doesn’t matter. Some people’s concerns about their own hygiene can also be a passion killer. A common issue is one partner wanting to make love first thing in the morning, but the other feels worried about their breath or body odour and would prefer a quick wash and brush-up first. Intimacy-builder Have a bath or shower before sex. Consider using this as a way of relaxing together or having some sexy, splashy fun. Casually suggest your partner has a quick shower before sex.


There are many upsides to a later-in-life sexual relationship with someone you’ve been with for years. With your children grown, you probably have more free time, you don’t have pregnancy fears and you have fewer insecurities and more relationship confidence because of what you’ve weathered as a couple. As a result, you’re more able to say what you want, feel less pressure to prove yourself, and are more willing to be vulnerable with your partner. Together these create great conditions for a fabulous, mature sex life. If you need any further convincing, regular intercourse can help prevent or delay vaginal atrophy (the thinning and drying of vaginal walls), reduces the likelihood of erectile dysfunction, and produces hormones that are anti-ageing and may help keep dementia at bay.

Intimacy-builder Talk to each other about what you like. Your sexual likes may have changed over time, so be prepared to compromise so you can make the most of these more relaxed sexual encounters. If any sex- or relationship-related issues are getting in the way of satisfying sex, talk to your GP.

Quick Tips
  • Treat sexual issues as a couple problem, rather than one person being responsible.
  • Be aware of your partner’s sexual needs and preferences and take responsibility for your own.
  • Don’t be forced into doing anything you don’t want to do.
  • Enjoy kisses and cuddles for what they are rather than hoping every show of affection will lead to sex. . . or dreading that it will.
  • Don’t be too serious about sex – enjoy being playful and having fun.


Many people use pornography for stress relief and because they’re too tired for partnered sex. Be warned, though: porn is an intimacy sapper and should not be overused. Internet porn can literally change the brain in a way that makes real-life partnered sex less attractive and arousing. This is partly due to the highly alluring, quick fix nature of internet porn, where even just the thought of your computer can ultimately become arousing. As the brain becomes programmed for the internet fix, it becomes more difficult to enjoy sex with another person. If you use porn, limit your viewing time and have a few porn-free days every week. Intimacy-builder If one of you is using porn, talk about this and consider other ways to feel closer, starting with going to bed at the same time and ending every day with intimacy, if not sex.

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One of you wants more sex than the other – it’s an age-old problem, but one that couples rarely discuss. Instead, they often develop behaviours which seek or avoid sex, usually making them thoroughly miserable and damaging their overall chances of intimacy. The simple solution is to discuss with your partner how to manage this. It may be that you need to negotiate how much physical contact is reasonable given your circumstances – how tired, stressed and busy you are.

Intimacy-builder Plan sexual encounters in advance and agree on the best times for sex – the end of a long, tiring day is usually not the best time. If regular intercourse is unrealistic, talk about other ways to maintain physical intimacy, for example, sensual massages or oral sex.


The time immediately after sex can be as important and special as the lovemaking itself. It isn’t a great time to fall straight to sleep, dash to the loo, or get up and pack the next day’s lunchboxes. Stop and luxuriate in the feeling. Leaving straightaway creates insecurity and may give the impression that you didn’t value the special time you just had together. Intimacy builder Put a positive seal on your relationship by indulging in cuddles and reassuring, tender kisses after making love.